Crowds of adults and youngsters gather in earnest as strong drum beats signal the start of the traditional Arab ritual.
I’m sandwiched among the audience at the exclusive Pearl-Qatar in Doha, Qatar awaiting this highly publicized event that will initiate tomorrow’s slate of National Day festivities.
Dusk settled in hours ago. Alongside the calm harbor where expensive, prized yachts sway silently in their mooring’s, a sparkling star-lit sky paints the scene under which an ancient, authentic dance is about to delight an audience of varied nationalities.
The crowd falls silent as the drums burst forth with strong, choreographed beats. The dance begins with a tall man chanting a poem. The final single line of poetry is then repeated in the native Arabic tongue by thirteen or so traditionally dressed men and one boy forming a straight line, facing another distant line of men; the drummers dividing the two lines. The line of poetry is repeated again and again as drums beat lowly in the background. Soon men and young boys from one line wield their mighty swords and at first begin a one-by-one, slow processional dance parading around the drummers making their way to the second line of waiting men opposite. It is not long before the line of sword-yielding Arabs has intermingled and they are dancing around the drummers in unison.
This ceremonial ritual is part of all Middle Eastern Gulf countries’ national and official celebrations as a modern-day re-pledging of allegiance to the authorities.
There are subtle differences between the Ardha according to regions, I am told. Some poets recite poetry based on their personal wisdom-reflecting experiences, while others praise a certain individual or tribe with their poems. The last line of poetry, however, is repeated by all while the participants proudly display their swords in their right hands as they dance.
‘Ardha’, derived from ‘I’tirad’, an Arabic word meaning ‘intercrossing of swords’, has been ritualized for centuries. Often associated with war, the drums of Ardha declared an upcoming battle. Swords were brandished and poetry recited – the two defining characteristics of the Ardha – prior to Arab warriors meeting their enemies in battle.
The ritual reinforces a warrior’s fearlessness of fighting and stirs up the necessary adrenaline and enthusiasm amongst soldiers and leaders. The Ardha pre-dates Islam, which indicates this ancient Arab tradition is a cultural practice unrelated to the religion.
Boys as young as four years old, dressed in the traditional thobe (robe) and sporting the red-patterned kathra on their small heads, securely held in place by the black agal with its trailing sash cord, don’t carry real swords at their age. One youngster, standing tall next to his father, I presume, was intent on mimicking everything the adult did. It was perhaps his first Ardha performance, and proved very entertaining as he tried to remain focused and in harmony with the others. I suspect in the not-too-distant future, he will have succeeded admirably.
Short intermissions occurred following the 10-15 minute sword dance before yet another dance began. Different poems were recited – chanting likened to a traditional Latin mass or maybe Gregorian chanting – and the sword dancing continued for hours. People came and went, camera flashes constantly pierced through the dark, and applause was mighty and heartfelt after each rendition. My first Ardha. I somewhat unexpectedly discovered this to be a richly enlightening and highly enjoyable experience of an always-intriguing Arab culture.